April 12, 2012

How to Order Vegan, Gluten Free or Healthier Options at Restaurant Chains.

Photo: rkosick

Finding Healthy Options Where You Least Expect Them.

Expanding on last week’s post on healthier fast food finds, I’ve compiled a list of popular restaurant chains. You never know when you are heading out for a meal with a group and need to do the best you can with the menu you are given. No matter where you may be, you should have no problem finding a decent meal at any of the places on the list below.

So fear not my little health conscious foodies! You may eat, drink and be merry in mainstream dining establishments!

In no particular order:

P.F. Chang’s

Three words: veggie lettuce wraps! OMG, I love these darn things. Tofu sauteed in a delicious soy sauce (gluten free people, have them sautee the tofu in rice vinegar and lemon) served with crunchy rice noodles and crisp lettuce “tortillas.” They are great about offering steamed or fried options, as well as brown rice and lots of veggie dishes. Tofu can be substituted for most of the meat entrees as well. Chow down guilt free at PF Chang’s!


I want my veggie meal, veggie meal, veggie meal! Yeah, order up the portobello & steak fajitas and have them hold the steak. They will add extra mushrooms and veggies like broccoli, onions, peppers and more! Vegans—make sure to ask for extra fixings to make up for the loss of the cheese and sour cream. Don’t forget extra chimichurri! Their black bean burger is also a great veggie and healthy hit, although not vegan. Also opt for their veggie tacos, but hold the ranch sauce for a satisfying meal. Their salads are all modifiable, but be sure to ask about the dressings as that’s where the naughty ingredients like to hide.

California Pizza Kitchen

This place rocks for vegans, veggies, gluten free peeps and more! Vegan split pea soup, asparagus soup with no croutons and their grilled veggie salad are to die for!! Their hummus (with neopolitan crust instead of pita) is a winner for any diet type and the guacamole is a hit too. Salads can be modified to fit your special diet, the balsamic vinaigrette is vegan. Pizzas made on neopolitan dough are veganizable when ordered without cheese. I kill for their veggie or tricolor salad pizza!


I know, what can you get at a steak house that’s healthy or even vegan? How about the best damn veggie burger ever? A homemade black bean and brown rice patty smothered in a sweet soy BBQ sauce. Order it without cheese and check out one of their vegan sides like steamed veggies or black beans with brown rice. You can also opt for a soy latte, a veggie sushi roll and a side salad. Insane!

The Cheesecake Factory

Photo: chiragndesai

This catalog for a menu always has something for all discerning diners. Tons of veganizable salads (choose a balsamic or citrus vinaigrette and nix the black beans as they are soaked in beef juice). Naughty fried zucchini, crisp artichoke hearts  and the best, avocado egg rolls. A healthier fire roasted artichoke dip is a great start choice as well edamame and guacamole. That dang bread the serve will come in handy for satiating the carb demon as the pastas and sauces are not vegan. And lastly, the grilled portobello on a bun is yummalicious without cheese and mayo.

The Olive Garden 

Italian is usually simple enough for a health nut. Their minestrone is vegetarian, but make sure they do not garnish it with cheese or throw in to many pasta shells. It’s hearty and tasty when paired with the all you can eat salad. Ask for oil and vinegar as the dressing as the house Italian contains parmesan. The bruschetta appetizer with no cheese is a doozy too. Gluten free folks can ask for a separate menu that lists acceptable items as it is part of their new garden fare menu for those looking for the lighter side of the garden.


Try the veggie patch pizza appetizer with no cheese or spinach (it’s creamy). Change up any salad by omitting unwanted items and tossing it in their balsamic dressing. Go for the chicken portobello sandwich (without the chicken) along with a nice side salad. Those of you on weight watcher’s, they’ve got the points values of everything on their menu so you don’t have to guess.

TGI Friday’s

You are pretty much subject to ordering a salad without meat or cheese and going with a vinaigrette. You can indulge in a basket of sweet potato fries though.

Panera Bread

This is one of my all time favorite spots—fresh salads, soups and breads that work well on any diet. I always go for the pick 2 and get a vegan soup with the classic cafe salad. Go for an apple as your side and you are good to go. The sandwiches can be veganized with proper direction and its worth it as their bread selections are awesome. Soy lattes and healthy meals are the perfect combo.

Ruby Tuesday

Gluten and peanut allergy sufferers can dine happily here along with us greenies. They have detailed menus of what special diets can order without worry. For me, I can chow on a guacamole dip starter. Then I can move on to a salad I make on my own at their salad bar. Perhaps a homemade veggie burger and some brown rice pilaf or steamed broccoli and I’ve just had one vegtastic feast!


If you must, have a veggie burger with all of the fixings can hold you over. I normally order it protein style, no bread, wrapped in lettuce.


I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Mexican is a great way to go for all kinds of special diets. Always make sure of the chips and tortillas are made with lard, but usually one or the other is ok. Chevy’s has some kick a*s guac and salsa. Their veggie fajitas rock as does their veggie burrito. Just save the sour cream and cheese and you are golden! At Chevy’s, the black beans are vegan and the both tortillas are lard free (with the exception of the El Machino flour tortillas). The salsa vinaigrette and Mexican rice are also perfecto!

Sweet Tomatoes/Souplantation

You can’t go wrong when you make your own salad at a salad bar. Some of the tossed salads are also vegan such as the mandarin spinach with caramelized walnuts, strawberry fields with caramelized walnuts, thai peanut and red pepper, and the thai udon and peanut. Vegan friendly prepped salads are white bean, arugula citrus, red pepper slaw, Asian pepper salad, bean and cilantro, dijon potato and garlic dill, mandarin noodles with broccoli, mandarin shells with almonds, green bean and potato, roasted potato and chipotle chili, southwest pasta, summer barley with black beans, tabbouleh, citrus & brown rice, tomato cucumber marinade and three bean marinade. Again, it’s safe to stick to the vinaigrettes. Lots of soups to choose from as well, providing they are available on the day you pop in like the tomato onion, ratatouille, black bean, veggie harvest, minestrone and lentil. The bakery and pasta bars don’t have much for vegans, but you may get lucky with some of the bread or sauteed veggies.

Hard Rock Cafe

Yep, depending on where you are or who you are with, you just might find yourself at one of these. Fear not, as you can grab a tried and true HRC veggie burger, with no cheese or mayo. Have a side salad, but if you want to be naughty, order the fries!

Boston Market

I love their market salad with no cheese. It is super fresh and tasty. You can also order a veggie carver and indulge in the apple cobbler, cinnamon applesauce or fruit bowl.


You know you might end up here one night after a show or a long drive. So, if and when you do, know that you can consume a veggie burger and a side salad. Or, for breakfast, oatmeal with no milk, a veggie patty with dry toast along with some OJ and coffee.

Macaroni Grill

My favorite thing to order here is the create your own pasta. I ditch the pasta all together and have them saute all of the veggies they have in a garlic and olive oil. Goes down great with a glass of red wine and some of their peasant bread. Vegans can’t do the pasta, pizza crusts or even the red sauce. They are great with food allergies and special diets, so don’t fret if you don’t know before you go.

Buca di Beppo

Start with some bruschetta (hold any sprinkled cheese) and then split a big ol’ mixed green salad with balsamic vinaigrette. I mess with the menu by ordering the gnocchi with plain marinara and veggies and I’m sure you can do the same with any pasta dish.

Pick Up Stix

You can’t go wrong with Asian cuisine as you can always get some sort of stir fried veggie dish. Here you can do tofu lettuce cups, tofu and veggies, rice bowls and whole slew of lighter fare. Go for the steamed, not fried items if you can swing it, have some salad, and watch out for the soy and teryaki of you are wheat and gluten sensitive.

Jason’s Deli 

This is a nice spot to pick up food for a trip or day at the park. There are sandwiches and sides for all. Go for the spinach veggie wrap with no cheese or the Mediterranean wrap with no mods.


The usual American fare can be health-ified by veganizing the salads and keeping an eye on the dressings. Same for the veggie burger.

Outback Steakhouse

Haha, ok. For non veggies, get your meat grilled and get a side salad instead of that damn bloomin onion! For veg heads, get a salad with the tomato dressing, no cheese. You can also pull out all the stops and get a steamed sweet potato. Their veggies are drowned in butter but you can ask for them steamed and dry. No mushrooms either as they are swimming in beef broth.

Johnny Rockets

The Boca burger is your friend here and is customizable to be as fat or as plain as you want it. Fries here are a-ok as they are fried in soy oil—vegan but not to healthy.

Z Pizza

This organic pizza joint is a hit. Organic crusts, toppings and even vegan cheese and meatless toppings. Pizzas, salads and sandwiches are all made fresh and taste freakin’ great!

The Habit

It can’t be healthy and again, these places are supposed to be had once in a blue moon. However, if you find yourself here, get the veggie burger (unfortunately not vegan, but ok for veggies) with no cheese, on grilled sourdough with cucumber, sprouts, avocado and grilled onions. OMG! Oh, and they have salads too.

Pizza Fusion

This is what heaven must be like! Organic salads, sandwiches and vegan pizza. Yes! They have gluten free crusts, vegan cheese, a bajillion awesome toppings. Word.


Mediterranean is great for healthy choices. I love their veggie combo plate with hummus and pita, dolmas, falafel and salad. It’s filling, tasty and doesn’t leave you with any guilt. I hold the spanikopitas (cheese) and add more of everything else. The falafel pitas and salads are good too.


I really like the selection here. I go light with a mixed green salad and minestrone. Sometimes I do the melanzane penne pasta primavera. They also have some great side veggies—some are even organic.

Louise’s Trattoria

This place wins for the best minestrone. Ask for it with no cheese or crusty cheese bread and it’s still mega tasty! I pair this with a huge Louise’s chopped salad with no cheese and I am elated.

Mimi’s Cafe

A large menu always has some good options for alternative meals. The salads are veganizable with balsamic dressing, as is the veggie ciabata with no cheese or pesto. The vegetarian vegetable is a good choice, as well as the veggie burger.

El Torito

Oh yeah, tableside guac—the best in the biz! Go for that and some salsa but make room for their veggie burrito as it is chock full of great veggies. Order it with the vegetarian beans and you will be a happy camper. If you drop the dairy on the veggie enchiladas, you will be full for days.


Similar to El Torito, their appetizer guacamole is pretty good. Check out the veggie fajitas with no cheesey or creamy condiments.

Chin Chin

Veggie potstickers and minced veggie lettuce cups every time! But they do have some great veggie noodle and rice dishes. You can also sub tofu for meat on most of the menu items.

Claim Jumper

Mmm, fire roasted artichoke (ask for it with ponzu sauce) or avocado rolls to start. Veganize any salad by nixing meat and dairy items and sticking to citrus or balsamic vinaigrettes. Also try to produce bar. For a heartier meal, grab a veggie sandwich sans cheese with a veggie stuffed baked potato with no cheese.

El Pollo Loco

I forgot these last two guys last week, so here they are! If you catch yourself around here, sides are alright—like a side salad with no cheese, pinto beans and some veggies with no margarine. Slather all your stuff in salsa!

Pollo Tropical

I am a sucker for Cuban food, so the sides here make me very happy. Boiled yucca in garlic sauce, plantains, and some rice with black beans. They also offer the veggie tropichop which is like a cuban veggie rice bowl. Oh, so good!

We’d love to hear about your special diet menu secrets at national chains! Leave a comment.


Editor: Brianna Bemel

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